Time for the UK to start taking slavery seriously

Front page of The Times

Human trafficking has slowly – too slowly – climbed the political agenda in recent months and is starting to make inroads into the national consciousness. This morning The Times’ front page was dominated by the news that a gang grooming young children for sexual slavery in the UK are to stand trial. This was a timely story as, by sheer coincidence, I was at the Centre for Social Justice’s ‘slavery in the UK’ launch with Iain Duncan Smith in central London today. CSJ, an independent think tank launched by the former Conservative Party leader in 2004, are conducting an in depth investigation into contemporary slavery in the UK and will produce a report on their findings in 15 months time. The remit of the review, which will be headed by Unseen UK’s Director Andrew Wallis, is to “transform Britain into a beacon of anti-slavery practice across Europe and the wider world.”

That is an ambitious target. The CSJ are to be applauded for launching the review and it will no doubt succeed in bringing further publicity to the issue. However, it is unlikely to reveal anything radically different. We know what the problems are and cleverer people than me will tell you exactly what governments (both national and transnational) need to do. The challenge is getting the change implemented. As Aidan McQuade, the director of Anti-Slavery International, put it at today’s launch: how can we get the government to listen and take action?

The coalition, from David Cameron down, have repeatedly said that addressing the issue of human trafficking is a priority for this government. This would be laughable if was not so offensive. During the course of planning a recent anti-slavery event, I contacted the Home Office several times to invite officials to take part. I was told by one person that they weren’t sure if human trafficking was something that the Home Office dealt with. I was informed by one bemused Foreign Office official that he was unaware if anyone in the FCO dealt with trafficking. This hardly seems to back up the rhetoric coming from the mouths of the Prime Minister and Home Secretary. If tackling contemporary slavery really is a priority for this government then why was the UK the second to last country in the European Union to adopt the EU Directive on Human Trafficking? Why has the inter-departmental taskforce, set up specifically to deal with this issue, only met once since the General Election 13 months ago? And why do so many government departments show little interest in producing policies that address the root causes of such heinous crimes? These examples, plus many others, demonstrates the magnitude of the task that the Centre for Social Justice has set itself in aiming to develop a report that intends to establish Britain as a world leader in the fight against slavery.

Tomorrow, over 180 countries will vote on a Convention for the Rights of Domestic Workers at the International Labour Organisation’s conference in Geneva. The Convention seeks to introduce international standards for domestic workers such as minimum health and safety provisions, fair working hours and responsible recruitment practices. I was reliably informed today that, although they have yet to announce it, the coalition government will abstain from voting. This follows the staggering fact that officials from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) made the UK the only country in the world to insist that its objections to health and safety provisions was recorded in the conference’s official minutes. By refusing to back the convention the UK is undermining commendable efforts to strengthen the rights for domestic workers. Given that domestic servitude is one of the most common forms of contemporary slavery, BIS is also seriously weakening international efforts to address human trafficking.

It is time for the coalition government to stop its empty rhetoric and start delivering. Iain Duncan Smith declared that rather being than a scare from our past, slavery is still an open wound. He concluded his remarks by saying “now is the time for action.” I couldn’t agree more. The question is, who is going to tell his government?

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